The Lowertown neighborhood of St. Paul is becoming one of those special neighborhoods with a little bit of magic dust on the streets, where on a gorgeous summer night you can go to dinner and then wander a block over to a nearby park and catch a live band, and then wander another block over to the minor league baseball park to sit in the stands and catch a few innings of high-school baseball.
You have classic architecture, Mears Park, the farmers market, and the majestic, recently remodeled Union Depot. Just a year ago, the light rail rolled in, delivering wide-eyed passengers from as far away as the Mall of America and Downtown Minneapolis. This summer, CHS Stadium opened, rescuing the glories of Saints baseball from an industrial no-man’s-land.
This is the setting in which Saint Dinette opened its doors in late June in the Rayette building, kitty-corner from the central branch of the St. Paul Farmers’ Market and one block west of the entrance to the Saints’ stadium.
Owners Tim Niver and J.D. Fratzke, have bet the long game on St. Paul with the Strip Club Meat and Fish, and with a third partner, Brad Tetzloff, have doubled down with Saint Dinette — it’s right there in the name’s reference to the local team. The restaurant is deliberately of the neighborhood, sitting in a large space typical of Lowertown, with tall ceilings, cement floors, and unadorned walls. The focus of the room is the giant windows that look out over the farmers market and the hilly Lowertown streets.
The food, however, has a broader scope, and that’s reflected in the other part of the name: Dinette. Originally intended to be a casual riff on the French food of Montreal, the concept expanded to include the French-influenced food of North America in general, from Montreal to New Orleans to Puebla, Mexico (where many French settled in the 1800s). Chef de cuisine Adam Eaton and general manager Laurel Elm (who are engaged — awwww!), both formerly of La Belle Vie, ate their way through the three aforementioned cities, discovering influences as disparate as Mexican, Southern, and Jewish, all woven together with the French.
The menu, which we’ve been assured will be changing regularly (some of the dishes described below are already no longer available), reflects these varied influences, but all of the food is familiar — casual comfort food, made vibrant with novel accents: a beet salad with herring or a blintz with foie gras.
On our first visit, we started with the Watermelon Gazpacho ($5). The cold tomato soup is ratcheted up with abundant black pepper and mellowed with pickled watermelon rind and bits of cucumber. Cilantro oil drizzled over the top balances the acidity with a swoon-worthy result that is herbal, fruity, and garden fresh.
The Trout Rillette ($10) comes in a jam jar, the perfect container to show off the cross section of the light pink fish, which is topped with creme fraiche, vibrant orange trout roe, and green baby chervil. The menu said small-s “saltines,” so we figured the dish would come with house-made soda crackers, but like Heinz ketchup, the original is hard to beat. A plate of twin-wrapped big-S Saltines served as the perfect substrate for our rillettes. The slightly smoky fish, the creme, and the delicate roe were excellently balanced, atop one cracker after another, till the jar was empty.
The Beet Salad ($10) — with beets rolled in pastrami spices and accompanied by thin bagel toasts and matjes herring — proudly bears its Jewish-French-Canadian roots. The plate is drizzled with whipped cream cheese and droplets of golden oil. Beets are piled with the pickled herring and topped with watercress and yellow and orange flowers. The colorful salad tastes as good as it looks. Sweet and salty, briny and earthy, creamy and vegetal: all collide. So often found with cheeses like blue or goat, beet salad is reinvigorated with a mild, firm herring.
The Parisian Gnocchi ($9 half / $16 whole) was another hit. This style of gnocchi, essentially poached pate a choux, or profiterole pastry, is less dense than potato gnocchi, though we found them to be slightly chalky. Green from the ramps, with flavors of garlic and onion, each dumpling was browned on one side, giving the soft dough a textural base. The gnocchi were tossed with a generous amount of oil and topped with fried nettles and fresh nasturtium leaves.
The Smoked Marlin Enchilada ($10 one / $18 two) divided the table. Covered with a rich, astringent mole, the corn tortilla was filled with a mixture of pureed potatoes and smoked marlin. Some tasters loved the filling’s soft texture, and others found it puzzling and lacking in focus, as if the marlin were lost in the potatoes.
Divided by the enchilada, the table was reunited by the Popover ($5). The golden-brown, lumpy crust hid a chewy, eggy crumb that instantly melted the accompanying pat of honey-drizzled butter. The sweetness was the perfect prologue to the Half Chicken ($24 half / $40 two halves), which arrived boneless, white and dark meat wrapped together around dirty rice, and fried in a light, salty breading. The bird is cut into five or so pieces, offering a cross section of the meat, which looks almost rare in the center. Rest assured, we were told, the bird is fully cooked. Initially prepared sous vide, which leaves it incredibly tender and juicy, the bird is stuffed, dredged, and fried only after it is fully cooked. The gravy was fine, but the chicken didn’t need it. Fried sprigs of thyme made a tasty garnish. Already stuffed, we made enough room for a half chicken, but alas, we were too full for dessert.
We returned on a Sunday morning for an early brunch and were greeted by many of the same faces from our first visit. Even with the passage of a few days and the weekend throngs, these pros remembered us and took the time to say welcome back. That’s some good front-of-house.
Brunch was no less impressive than dinner. The Everything Bagel ($12) came with a Montreal smorgasbord of beet-cured salmon, whipped cream cheese, pickled cucumber, capers, sliced hard boiled egg, red onion, and a garnish of fresh dill. The bagel’s crust was bubbly, offering the perfect amount of resistance, and the crumb was light and yeasty. This was as good as any bagel we’ve had between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and San Francisco Bay. The salmon was also top notch. Fresh and buttery, it yielded to the teeth, instead of pulling, as lesser lox can. For the same price as a bagel with Gaspé Nova lox at Russ and Daughters, it’s enough to make any mensch kvell.
The potato sope ($10) was a fried cake made of masa harina and potato that was served with chorizo, fresh watercress, ramps and jalapeño, and an egg sunny-side up. Unlike the neatly arranged, carefully sliced smorgasbord, the sope was all mixed together into a beautiful, aromatic mess. The sope itself had a nice crisp exterior and a sweet, doughy interior, and the sausage tasted like a chorizo / breakfast sausage hybrid. Without the sausage, this is an excellent option for vegetarians.
The coffee, we should note, was smooth, non-acidic, and roasted medium to dark with hints of chocolate, and our cups never dropped below the halfway mark.
In our most recent (certainly not final) visit, we aimed to sit at the bar and take in the crowd, pre-Saints game.
The Fried Smelt ($6) and Corn on the Cob ($7) were both outstanding. The little fried fishes, served with remoulade and topped with fried watercress, were a delight to eat: a little crunchy, a little chewy, not overly oily or fishy. And we loved the fried greens that Saint Dinette is using as a garnish. The corn, a riff on elotes, is served as two half ears, each with adorable little corn holders. With visible char lines from the grill, the ears are rolled in mayo and teeny-tiny lobster roe and topped with cotija cheese. The corn was cooked perfectly, and it would be hard to think of anything that can’t be improved by a smear of mayo and fresh, crumbly cheese.
The Cheeseburger ($12) was in keeping with the latest (and most welcome) trend of double-patty, flat-top burgers with American cheese. On a soft bun, with pickles, it’s perfect and easily as good as Revival’s version. The Bologna Sandwich ($10), in which thinly sliced, house-made bologna visits the flattop and is crowned with American cheese, was a let down. It wasn’t bad, but our expectations had been raised impossibly high by nearly everything else we’d eaten. Hoping for transcendence, we found that in the end it was just a bologna sandwich.
For dessert we tried the Blintz ($8). The crepe was folded around a tiny amount of creme fraiche mixed with foie gras, and the result was the height of richness. The sweet, acidic, blueberry topping cut it a little bit, and powdered sugar rounded out the palette. It was good, but next time we’re going for the Churros.
After three visits, we can safely say that the staff is firing on all cylinders. The servers and bartenders are friendly, knowledgeable, and clearly having a lot of fun. It’s infectious. With only a couple of exceptions, the food was outstanding. Chef Eaton paints with a broad brush, while maintaining a focus that allows gnocchi and cheeseburgers to sit next to each other on the menu and at the table.
The prices hover around fair. While $24 seems steep for a half chicken, the bird itself is mightily impressive, and the preparation is involved. On the other hand, the generous half serving of gnocchi felt like a bargain at $9. Prices for canned beer push at the ceiling. $6.50 for PBR? $8 for Surly Furious? Let’s crack one to the hope that this isn’t the new normal. On the other hand, local craft beer on tap at about $6 a glass is more than fair, and so the was the Summer Bourbon ($10), a well-balanced cocktail with tastes of apricot and orange, bitters, and gomme syrup.
For those of us not lucky enough to live in charming Lowertown, the neighborhood has officially become a destination, and Saint Dinette plays no small part in making it worth the trip. They caught (or probably brought) their share of the magic Lowertown dust.
French / American dinette in Lowertown, St. Paul
261 E 5th Street
St. Paul, MN 55101
Owners / Chef: Tim Niver, J.D. Fratzke, Brad Tetzloff / Adam Eaton
Tue-Thu 5-10 p.m.
Fri 5-11 p.m.
Sat 9 a.m.-11 p.m.
Sun 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
Mon Closed unless the Saints play at home
Vegetarian / Vegan: Yes / Ask
Entree Range: $8 – $40
Parking: Street parking, public ramps
Note: The description of the gnocchi was changed to reflect the fact that they were made from pate a choux rather than puff pastry.